For pretty much the entire existence of the Christopher Reeve Superman series, there were a number of attempts to bring Batman back to the big screen. The character’s popularity at the time was waning, thanks to the 60’s show reruns losing traction, and the overall superhero focus leaned towards Superman. CBS showed interest in producing a Batman in Outer Space film, which really doesn’t sound right for the character. In 1979, the rights for a Batman film were purchased, with the hopes of making a dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger envisioned him in 1939. At one point, Guy Hamilton was approached to direct, but he turned it down. A number of studios also turned the project down, wanting a movie closer to the 60’s series in tone.
In late 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Buber joined the project. They felt it best to pattern the film’s development after Superman. Despite not finding a studio at the time, they publically announced the film at the Comic Art Convention in New York, with a budget of $15 million. Warner Bros, who were also behind Superman, decided to accept and produce Batman. Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Donner’s creative consultant (in truth, his main writer) wrote a script called The Batman in 1983, focusing on Batman and Robin’s origins. The movie would also feature the Joker and Rupert Thorne (a crime boss with regular Batman appearances at the time) as the villains.
The script went through 9 different rewrites, with 9 different writers. Mankiewicz was hoping for William Holden for James Gordon, and David Niven as Alfred Pennyworth, however they died in 1981 and 1983 respectfully. At one point, one script rewriter was hoping for Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin, which of course would not work with a more serious tone … at all. None of these 9 scripts deviated too much from Mankiewicz’s original story.
After the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Warner Bros. hired Tim Burton to direct Batman. Burton then got his then-girlfriend Julie Hickson to write a new 30-page treatment, feeling that Mankiewicz’s script was campy. The success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke rekindled interest in the film across all parties. Burton, who wasn’t a fan of comics beforehand, was very impressed with the dark and serious tone in both stories. In fact, The Killing Joke is a clear inspiration for the movie he ended up making. Sam Hamm, a fan of the comics, was brought in by Burton to write the screenplay, and he opted not to include an origin story, feeling that flashbacks would work better for “unlocking the mystery”. Unlocking the mystery would also be a major theme of his script.
“You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.”
I would argue that Batman Begins clearly proved Hamm’s argument false, but the approach he took for this movie still works quite well.
Despite how the project was moving along, and Batman co-creator Bob Kane showed a lot of enthusiasm for Hamm’s script, Warner Bros started losing interest. The Superman film franchise’s struggles since Superman III, which put a lot of doubt on the project. Someone ended up bootlegging Hamm’s script at various comic stores in the United States, which ended up renewing public interest in the film. Warner Bros. finally decided to greenlight Batman, which entered pre-production in April of 1988.
Unlike Superman’s casting of a relative newcomer, they wanted to cast a major actor for the role of Batman from the start. Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid were all considered. There were rumors that Willem Dafoe was considered for The Joker, but in reality, he was instead considered for Batman early in development. Eventually, Michael Keaton was recommended to Burton for the role of Batman. Having worked with Keaton in Beetlejuice, Burton agreed. This actually caused a lot of controversy among fans. Before his casting as Batman, Keaton mainly acted in comedy roles. Even Kane questioned the casting, unable to see past his roles in Mr. Mom and Night Shift. Meanwhile, Keaton studied The Dark Knight Returns for inspiration on how to play the part.
The casting for The Joker was also a complex process with a number of considered actors. Tim Curry, David Bowie, John Lithgow and James Woods were all considered. Lithgow, during his audition, actually tried to talk Burton out of casting him, which he later admitted regretting.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.”
Robin Williams lobbied hard for the part, but didn’t get it. Burton wanted John Glover (Lionel Luthor in Smallville), but Warner Bros insisted on a movie star. Despite all those considered though, Jack Nicholson was the studios’ top choice since 1980, and was approached as early as 1986 while filming The Witches of Eastwick. Unlike Keaton, he was always a popular choice for the role. His contract is a bit strange, with an “off-the-clock” agreement. It specifically stated how many hours he was allowed to have off each day, which included LA Lakers home games. He wanted all of his scenes shot within 3 weeks, but that stretched to 106 days. He reduced his standard $10 million fee to $6 million in exchange for a profit share, including merchandise, which ended up paying him over $50 million. Biographer Marc Elliot reports he may have even earned $90 million.
Sean Young was originally cast as Vicki Vale, a journalist and love interest for Bruce Wayne, but she had to pull out due to a horse-riding accident. The studio rushed to find a replacement, needing someone who wasn’t only right for the part, but could begin at very short notice. Kim Basinger was recommended because she could join immediately, and was cast in a matter of days. To round out the major cast members, Michael Gough joined as Alfred, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent (with the intention to later turn him into Two-Face), and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon.
Another major part of the film is the general look of Gotham City, so it would be wrong to not mention set designer Anton Furst. Burton wanted to hire Furst for Beetlejuice, but he already committed to the ghost comedy High Spirits, which he regretted. He very much enjoyed working with Burton, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so naturally in tune with a director … Conceptually, spiritually, visually, or artistically. There was never any problem because we never fought over anything. Texture, attitude and feelings are what Burton is a master at.”
They specifically designed Gotham City to be the ugliest and bleakest metropolis imaginable, with clashing architectural styles. “We imagined what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay in ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going.”
There are actually a lot more fascinating aspects of the film’s production that are worth exploring, but it’s time to get to the actual review part of this post. The movie broke the Memorial Day opening weekend records held by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with $40 million over 4 days, and also set the second weekend record with $30 million. That also happened to be the second highest 3-day weekend earnings in history at the time. The movie ended up earning $411 million worldwide on a budget somewhere between $35-48 million, making it the fifth highest grossing movie in history at the time. Despite its impressive intake, Warner Bros claimed they lost $35 million, yet another case of “Hollywood accounting” of playing with expenses and shuffling money around so they could dodge taxes. In the long run, including merchandising and home video releases, it’s estimated that the movie’s revenues topped $2 billion.
The movie received some criticism for its overall dark tone, but overall received positive reviews. It sits at 71% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 6.6/10. Many critics pointed out that the movie seemed more interested in the Joker as a character than Batman, and some complained that he was the one who ended up murdering Bruce Wayne’s parents. However, fans praised Keaton’s performance as Batman, despite the initial backlash to his casting. The movie also earned the Academy Award for Best Art Direction, the President’s Award at the Saturn Awards, and numerous nominations for acting, visual design and makeup.
Of the film’s success, Burton remarked “Ever since I did Batman, it was the first dark comic book movie. Now everyone wants to do a dark and serious superhero movie. I guess I’m the one responsible for that trend.”
As for myself, I enjoy this movie. It’s not perfect. Despite its overall serious tone, there are times when it gets campy and silly. The Prince songs included in the soundtrack really don’t mix well with the movie’s overall tone. Some of the action feels really dated, not helped by the fact that Keaton can barely move in his Batman suit. Despite its flaws, this movie does three things very well.
One, the visual design. Just … look at this video. It’s a good sample of Danny Elfman’s awesome soundtrack as well. Just know that some of these images are from Batman Returns.
Two, the performances. Keaton actually felt claustrophobic in the Batman suit, but he managed to add that dark feeling to his performance. He gave us a Batman that ranges from low-key intimidating to terrifying for his enemies. He’s also great as Bruce Wayne, giving an unassuming performance where you know he’s a nice guy at heart, but he’s clearly hiding something from the public. Of all the actors I’ve seen portraying Batman, Keaton quite possibly gives us the best balance between Bruce Wayne and Batman that we’ve ever seen. Nicholson is very good as the Joker, with an interpretation in which the joker himself is chaos. He doesn’t even know what he wants, but that makes him a dangerous. He’s very entertaining yet you still believe that he’s a credible threat. Basinger is great as an intelligent reporter who genuinely falls for Bruce, but doesn’t know how to feel about him being Batman. It’s too bad she never returned for any sequels. And of course Gough brings a sense of dignity to Alfred. He’s actually the one actor who appears in all four of the Batman Quadrilogy movies with a significant role.
Three, the dynamic between Batman and the Joker. I can understand how some may complain that the Joker killed Bruce’s parents, as it’s Joe Chill in the comics, but I don’t mind. At least within the movie, it makes the conflict a lot more personal. The Joker, as Jack Napier, committed the murder that begun Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Likewise, Batman caused Jack to fall into the chemicals that turned him into the Joker. They are each responsible for what they’ve become. Furthermore, they have a confrontation in all four possible ways. The first, Jack kills Bruce’s parents with a young Bruce present. Second, Batman puts the Joker into the chemicals. Third, the Joker attacks at Vicky Vale’s apartment, where Bruce Wayne happens to be present. And finally, Batman and the Joker face each other at the top of a bell tower for the movie’s climax.
One complaint I sometimes see about this movie is how Batman straight up kills several people. Normally these days in the comics, and also the Dark Knight trilogy, killing is a line Batman refuses to cross. I get why people don’t like the part where Batman straight up tosses one of the Joker’s henchmen down the bell tower. Personally I don’t mind. In the early comics, Batman killed people all the time. There’s even a classic issue where he’s straight up shooting criminals with a gun on the cover. There are numerous interpretations of Batman throughout the years, and there are interpretations within the main Batman comics where he’s a couple steps short of the Punisher. This is basically just that Batman on the big screen, and I find it kind of awesome.
This movie isn’t perfect. The tone is uneven at times, there isn’t really that much of a core plot, and the action hasn’t aged well. But overall, this is a great movie, not to mention a truly character driven story. It features brilliant performances from two opposing crazy people, who are each responsible for the other person’s craziness. Even if this movie wasn’t about Batman, that in itself can make for a great action thriller. But it is a good Batman movie on top of that. It’s a movie that was successful enough to not only launch a quadrilogy, but a very successful animated series that many consider to be the best adaptation of Batman period.
Next up is Batman Returns, which is what you get when you put Burton solely in charge of a superhero movie. Then it’s Batman Forever. After that I will look at Batman and Robin, but Steel (starring Shaq) will actually come before that. After Batman and Robin, it’ll be the movie I’m dreading the most for this blog series, Catwoman.
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is still my favourite Batman movie. I love the dark gothic look and tone Burton brings to the story, and Gotham looks amazing. Keaton and Nicholson are perfectly cast as Batman and the Joker as well. Some aspects haven’t aged well, the story is a bit clunky in places, but for me it remains possibly the most definitive version of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight to ever appear on the big screen.
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